Last week, my column was about how branding differs between search and more traditional brand channels like TV and print. It came from a recent client conversation I had. Rob Schmults from Intent Media added a well-thought-out, on-the-mark comment that deserves a follow-up. There are three points in particular I want to dive deeper into.
“ I think part of the problem in attempting to do so is that branding is all too often an end in and of itself rather than a means.”
Absolutely. Most sales and marketing happens in dozens of disconnected siloes, with little thought about how the actions of one silo affect all the others. Each silo measures progress by its own metric and set its own agenda. The problem is that all these different initiatives are aimed at the same target, but there is little thought as to how each initiative can impact the prospect.
For the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to approach marketing by starting first with creating a common understanding of the buyer’s motivations and behaviors, and then mapping a decision landscape so we can begin to understand the path the buyer takes through it. Much of my writing over the past two years has explored various aspects of this landscape: things like the role of risk and reward, and how they affect the emotions drive our buying decisions.
If branding becomes disconnected and “an end in and of itself,” it starts to lose touch with the chain of “means” that translates brand awareness into action. I saw a particularly acute example of this in a recent meeting: a brand agency presented research showing each point of movement in its unaided brand awareness metric translated into X of additional revenue. I didn’t dispute the finding, as I believed it to be true. What was missing was the long chain of interdependent “means” taking us from there to here. It was like saying that each inch of rain translated into X increase of revenue at the local farmer’s market. We’re jumping from “A” to “Z” without worrying about the 24 intervening letters.
“SEM is clearly a means -- it's a step to driving a conversion event (typically a sale).”
As I mentioned last week, presence on the search page is very often a critical intermediate step between the lofty heights of brand-building and the nitty-gritty of bringing cash in the door. In fact, if you take the time to understand how search is typically used in the purchase process with your typical buyer, it typically falls into the “no-brainer” category, because the prospect has intent and is completely open to being persuaded. Which brings me to Rob’s next point:
“Branding has value, so the war Gordon describes doesn't have to end with total victory and branding's extinction.”
As effective as search is, it’s a channel with built-in limitations, including available inventory. If there is no awareness, there is no inventory. People can’t search for something they don’t know exists (at least, not yet). Branding creates awareness, which, if the dots are connected properly, eventually turns into intent. And when intent is present, search is very effective at converting that intent into action. The chain then is Awareness – Intent – Action, which is a variation on the venerable AIDA branding model: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action. If you combine the two you end up with Awareness – Interest – Desire – Intent – Action, or AIDIA. You need branding at the front end, to create awareness, spark interest and create desire. You need search at the back end to allow prospects to act on their intent and discover how to take action.
It’s interesting to note that the original AIDA model jumped all the way from desire to action without much explanation on how to get there. Given that two of the steps --“interest” and “desire” -- seem pretty similar, it’s odd that there is such a huge chasm between the domain of branding and the ultimate transaction itself. The AIDA model was definitely biased towards the front end of the marketing process.
I think what digital has done, especially through search, is to provide much more granularity and clarity on the many steps you can take to get from desire to action. But, as Mr. Schmults reminds us, none of these steps is “an end unto itself.” They’re part of a journey. They depend on each other. And each is passed through by your prospects as they travel down the path of purchase.
To come full circle, that was my original point. I’m not calling for the abolition of branding. I’m just asking that we take the time to understand the journey our customers take, and be there at each step.